Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto embrace at the end of the swearing-in ceremony in the lower house chambers of the National Congress, in Mexico City, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. Lopez Obrador took the oath of office Saturday as Mexico's first leftist president in over 70 years, marking a turning point in one of the world's most radical experiments in opening markets and privatization. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto embrace at the end of the swearing-in ceremony in the lower house chambers of the National Congress, in Mexico City on Saturday © AP

Andrés Manuel López Obrador was sworn in as Mexico’s president with a vow to abolish free-market policies that he said had been a “calamity” for the country.

The 65-year-old leftwing nationalist attacked neo-liberalism as he pledged to initiate a “fourth transformation of Mexico” in a combative speech on Saturday that at times made his business-friendly predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto squirm.

“It may sound pretentious or exaggerated but today is not only the start of a new government but a change of political regime,” said Mr López Obrador, whose election win overturned a political establishment that had been entrenched for more than a century.

His tone alarmed some business leaders. Gustavo de Hoyos, head of the Coparmex business confederation, tweeted that the speech contained “polarising expressions, retrograde ideology”.

Mexican markets have suffered heavy losses as investors have been spooked by Mr López Obrador’s shift in focus and disruptive style, but the new president said: “I commit, and I am a man of my word, that investments by national and international investors will be safe and I will create conditions for good returns.”

A longtime social activist, the president said he had no need “of anything material or the trappings of power”. But he takes office with the authority of a latter-day Aztec emperor after winning the strongest mandate in a generation with a landslide victory that also gave his party a majority in both houses of Congress.

The new president launched a fierce attack on the economic status quo and the energy reforms completed in 2013 that were the centrepiece of Mr Peña Nieto’s policy achievements.

Mr López Obrador harked back to Mexico’s golden growth period, from 1930 to 1960, and vowed not to repeat the way the country had racked up debt from 1970 to 1982.

He condemned “the manifest failure and corruption” of neo-liberal policies that he said had delivered a fraction of the growth of earlier decades but rampant graft.

A supporter of Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds a banner while waiting for his arrival at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A supporter of Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds a banner while waiting for his arrival at Zocalo square in Mexico City on Saturday © Reuters

“We will do all we can to abolish this neo-liberal regime,” said the blunt-talking nationalist in a speech in Congress before scores of foreign dignitaries. 

He also repeated his vow to respect the independence of the Bank of Mexico and to serve just one six-year term. Critics have feared that he could cling to power like other Latin American leftists including Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who was hailed by the new president at the swearing-in as an “amigo”.

He praised Donald Trump’s friendship — the US president sent his daughter Ivanka and vice-president Mike Pence to the ceremony.

Venezuela’s pariah president Nicolás Maduro skipped the swearing-in —- where deputies shouted “dictator” when the new president mentioned his name — but joined a reception at the 16th century National Palace, which will be Mr López Obrador’s office.

His promises were music to the ears of supporters, who gathered in Mexico City’s Zócalo square where, in a ceremony beside the remains of the Aztec Great Temple, members of Mexico’s 68 indigenous communities conducted purification rituals and invested Mr López Obrador as their leader.

“What we are seeking is the purification of Mexico,” Mr López Obrador said.

Mr López Obrador, the silver-haired son of shopkeepers from the south-eastern state of Tabasco, vowed to work 16-hour days and to start reforms immediately: the presidential plane, which he refuses to use, will go on sale on Monday.

The Los Pinos presidential residence was opened to the public on Saturday. Mr López Obrador will remain in his modest family home and fly coach class on commercial planes. As usual, he was driven to the day’s ceremonies in a white Volkswagen. 

Critics say the new president has a Messianic streak and refuses to listen. Claudio X Gonzalez, president of Mexicans against Corruption and Impunity, an NGO, tweeted that his speech was “backwards, not forwards-looking”.

But opinion polls show he enjoys approval ratings as high as 67 per cent — although one recorded a nine-point drop in his popularity since August. Roughly seven out of 10 Mexicans believe he will succeed in slashing corruption, poverty and crime. 

“Things have to change,” said Pablo San Juan, 57, a jeweller. “They will, and it’s going to hurt a lot of people, but that’s the way it is.” 

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Mario Guzman/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (10010959aq) Supporters of the Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gather at the Zocalo square, in Mexico City, Mexico, 01 December 2018, where the new president is expected to receive the baton this afternoon from representatives of Mexico's indigenous peoples. Investiture of Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City - 01 Dec 2018
Members of Mexico’s 68 indigenous communities conducted purification rituals and invested the new president as their leader

The new president did not announce the formal cancellation of a $13bn airport project that he has vowed to scrap. But he reiterated his promises to build a new refinery as part of a rescue for the energy sector that would deliver lower fuel prices.

His swearing in took place as his predecessor Mr Peña Nieto signed a deal to replace Nafta after months of fraught negotiations to preserve open trade in North America.

It came ahead of a visit to Washington by Mexico’s new foreign minister, who is seeking to persuade Donald Trump’s administration to back a regional development plan to resolve the issue of refugees from the region crossing in to the US.

Mr López Obrador paints his “Fourth Transformation” as a historic moment as pivotal as independence from Spain, liberal reforms in the 19th century and the Mexican Revolution over a 100 years ago. 

Some have their doubts. “I think reality about what the government can really do will hit him in the face . . . I’m afraid they’ll start to tinker with fiscal policy — tax and spend,” said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Institute at the Baker Center.

In the Zócalo, however, there was a party atmosphere. “We have to give him the benefit of the doubt,” said Susana Córdoba, a teacher from the president’s home state of Tabasco. “But he may have unreachable goals. He has to be realistic.”


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